Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Teaching freshman English. . . better?

I teach freshman writing. You know that typical duo of courses that most college students dread because they just do not see the point. Well, except those who like to write or fancy themselves good writers.

I can't and won't try to speak for all college English teachers around the country: I speak only for myself. I do have colleagues who still teach the five-paragraph essay in ENG101 and that makes me want to scream unpleasantries and probably several profanities.

There is absolutely no point to the five-paragraph essay. In any learning situation. It gives students a false framework they will likely never use in any writing situation outside of that class. It does not teach students how to write a paragraph because they learn to cram everything about a single topic into a single body paragraph.

But then I wonder if paragraphs actually matter any more. I like paragraphs. I think they help organize and structure someone's writing. It helps me quite literally see the process of their thinking and the organization of their work. But, hey, I'm often wrong so maybe paragraphs are overrated.

Then I wonder if I'm too tyrannical about fragments. I use fragments. Often. They can have a place, but I don't use them fragmented sentence after fragmented sentence.

I was talking with a colleague the other day and we agreed that we tend to use fragments in our texts and whenever we do talk-to-text because we are, quite literally, thinking out loud. And, for me, it's too time-consuming to go back to edit all of the talk-to-text errors although, yes, I do fix some of them. I get grief when I don't, so I'm rather damned if I do and damned if I don't.

Should I be requiring students to write a research paper? Yes, the professors of their majors courses might appreciate if it students already know how to do some level of research, create in-text citations, and the appropriate citations page, depending on their use of APA or MLA.

Even when they have choice, too often those research topics are simply too banal. On the other hand, they are college freshmen who may not know much of the world and so this particular thing may be one of the most important things to them. If I give them a list of things from which to choose, they will often go for the topic of least resistance. And I think it is often because they don't see the point of doing research or of the class.

Grade incentive isn't enough. They come to me having had those high school English teachers who have often gone to extraordinary lengths to try to get students interested in writing only to collapse under the collective weight of student apathy and find they just want to finish the school year. And some students won't care if they win some sort of prize for writing. Just they want to get through the class and get it behind them so they can get on to their more important classes.

I know I am not alone and have not been for the over 20 years I've been teaching writing. I have noticed, however, the resistance is real and growing. So I've started doing some research into how writing is changing in the "real world" (and don't get me started on the misconception that somehow school is not a student's "real world"). I'd like to know more, though, about the demands and expectations of writing in different work environments.

Does it matter if students can write complete sentences and purposeful paragraphs? Does reasonably good grammar matter? Does a question have to have a question mark or is it enough that you can figure out it's a question by the construction of the sentence? Is it all right if the writer uses "you" even if the writer is not speaking to the audience because, well, you know what they mean?

I'm doing some research on this because I have to change the way I teach this course. I have to make sure that I can meet students where they are and that we focus on that which is most important overall, not just my personal and professional writing quibbles. What say you?

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